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No Mbappe, no Neymar - Messi facing his most important PSG test alone

3:52 PM IST 22/12/21
Lionel Messi PSG 2021-22
With Neymar injured and Mbappe suspended, it will be left to the Ballon d'Or holder to lead the attack on his own against Lorient on Wednesday night

It will not be exactly like old times for Lionel Messi when he leads the Paris Saint-Germain attack against struggling Lorient on Wednesday at Stade Moustoir, but the Argentine will be restored to his customary role as his team’s star player.

For 17 years, Messi was virtually untouchable with Barcelona, and even more so in recent times. When Barca had a problem to solve, the solution was typically ‘get the ball to Messi'.

His seven Ballons d’Or offer ample evidence of how successful this ploy was. Since moving to PSG in the summer, though, he has had to fight for the spotlight.

Kylian Mbappe has been the Parisians’ go-to figure this season. With 15 goals and as many assists, there can be little doubt that the French sensation, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Monday, has comprehensively eclipsed the 34-year-old Argentine.

Mbappe, though, will miss Wednesday’s trip to Brittany because of suspension. Neymar, the misfiring third member of this superstar trio, is still more than a month away from regaining fitness. This will be, for the first time, Messi’s PSG team.

“If you look at Messi’s numbers, his first six months are incredible,” Leonardo argued in an interview with Europe1 on Monday.

The Brazilian added: “If you’re doubting Messi, it’s because you don’t understand anything about football.”

Despite Leonardo’s spin, there can be little question that Messi, domestically, at least, has been a disappointment. While he has scored five goals in five Champions League games, he has returned only a single strike in 10 Ligue 1 appearances while his defensive participation has been questioned.

"Did PSG make a mistake in recruiting Messi? I think so more and more," ex-PSG star Jerome Rothen told RMC last month.

"When you take Lionel Messi, you expect a lot of things, including individual feats that we've struggled to see since the start of the season. You expect him to improve his team-mates.

"You have to stop telling me he's still settling in. You don't have time!

"He's slowing the team down, which does not correspond to the players around him. The PSG bosses didn't realise it's necessary to have players who go in his direction, at his speed, who allow him to shine."

Messi may also have posted five assists, including a brilliant hat-trick of them away to Saint-Etienne, but this is not the output that PSG hoped from the greatest to play the game.

“Who says he has to run 12 kilometres in every game?” Leonardo asked. “He’s been playing the same way for 20 years.

“But he’s adaptable because he’s a genius and the other geniuses that we have are going to adapt to him. He spent 20 years at one club and we signed him in three days. Three days! It was totally unexpected for him.”

Messi’s adaption, though, could be hastened by the chance to become the focal point of the team – a role that he played so ably for two decades in Barcelona. Mbappe, despite his disadvantage in years, has enjoyed that status throughout this season, but now it is the Argentine’s to take for 90 minutes at least.

This trip to Ligue 1’s most out-of-form side, then, represents a tremendous opportunity for Messi to reprise the status that he for so long enjoyed at Camp Nou.

“It’s true that without Mbappe, we’ll have to build and progress on the pitch a different way,” Pochettino admitted during his pre-match briefing before admitting that Messi can sometimes be inadvertently bypassed.

“Very often, we can go too quickly. With Neymar or Mbappe on the field, it’s true that sometimes the first reflex can be to try to go behind because these players are at ease in this domain. Without him, we’ll have the chance to build play and respect the steps of building an attack.”

This, then, is surely where Messi comes in. Lorient boss Christophe Pelissier is certainly acutely aware of what South American could bring to this encounter.

“It’s a dream for everyone,” Pelissier said. “When I coached Luzenac [a club in France’s south west], I went to see a lot of matches at Camp Nou. It was exceptional to see Messi play. We would never have believed that we might face him.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to have a player like that in France. Whatever happens, we’ll have played against him and it’s exceptional.”

Indeed, this may be Messi’s most important test since moving to PSG. It is his chance to fully display his qualities without the possibility of being overshadowed – and the possibility to silence some of his increasingly vocal detractors.